The bespectacled Tom Chalkley sits perched on a stool and peers out at his 12 students. It's the first day of his cartooning class, and the sneaker-clad instructor appears in fine spirits. His boyish face, betrayed only by the gray hairs that stick out of his wool cap, looks down and smiles, as if recalling a joke.
One can't blame him if he smiles a little more than usual these days.
Earlier this month one of his one-panel cartoons ran in the New Yorker--for a cartoonist, the equivalent of a journalist getting a story on the cover of The New York Times' Sunday magazine or a comedian appearing on the Tonight Show.
Chalkley, who has been drawing cartoons since he was 9, first tried to break into the New Yorker's elite club in 1981. Discouraged by the initial rejection, he vowed that he wasn't going to try again until the magazine got a new cartoon editor. That time finally came last October, and, as he had promised himself, Chalkley sent another stack of cartoons. A couple of months later, on literally the last day of 1998, he got a call from the magazine.
"They said, 'Sorry it took so long to get around to you,'" Chalkley relates. "Then they told me they were buying two of my cartoons. That was thrilling."
The cartooning class Chalkley teaches every Friday during the spring semester deals with the historical development and techniques of cartooning. A freelance cartoonist and a semi-regular illustrator and writer at the City Paper, Chalkley has been teaching the popular course since its inception in 1990.
The types of cartoons he examines in class are political cartoons, comic strips, caricatures and one-panel works such as The Far Side and Matt Groening's Life in Hell.
Cartooning, he says, is neither literature or prose, or "art for art's sake," but rather a huge body in between.
Chalkley tells his students he won't spend a lot of time on Superman or other "steroid spandex comics" because, although superheroes are a "huge business," they represent only one aspect of cartooning.
That said, Chalkley quickly bursts the bubbles of those who had come in thinking they would sit and watch Tom and Jerry and Scooby Doo.
"I am aware for a lot of you this is a chance to unwind and unbend and get out of biochemical medical engineering," Chalkley says. "But this is a real class. I will wake you up if you fall asleep."
Chalkley asks his students to call him Tom. Assuming some might resort to calling him professor, he quickly debunks his title as the "Walt Kelly Professor of Sequential Imagery," a nom de plume given to him by Craig Hankin, director of the Homewood Art Workshops and a longtime friend, the name being a reference to the creator of Pogo.
Since half of the course will focus on the students creating their own cartoons, Chalkley tells them that one day he will lecture on how to generate ideas. He calls these ideas "germs," and so that they can capture them when they strike, Chalkley encourages his students to walk around campus with a sketch pad. Despite what they were told in grade school, he even urges them to doodle in his class.
"Feel free to draw me in your notebooks," Chalkley says. He adds that students should also try to draw caricatures of their other professors, by studying their faces and body language.
He does warn of the possible dangers, however.
"Please don't [draw] in class," Chalkley says with a slight sarcastic embellishment. "You might actually get in trouble."
Heading to the back of the room, which is in the basement of Merryman Hall, Chalkley begins to show slides of what he refers to as some "great" cartoons. He stops at one done by the infamous Robert Crumb. It's a multipanel work that first shows a lush green field with a large tree in the distance. In subsequent panels, a house is built on the plot, and then a store, until the piece of land has been transformed from a pristine rural setting to a decaying city block. It's a powerful piece of art, and one of Chalkley's favorites.
"I remember the first time I looked at this, I almost was in tears. I've seen this happen in just my lifetime," Chalkley tells his students. "Here's an example of cartooning making a statement that couldnąt be made in any other art form."
Chalkley says that even if his students never touch cartoons again other than as consumers, he hopes they walk away from his class with something meaningful.
"I think you can use cartooning as a gateway to a lot of other subjects--social criticism, popular culture studies, fine arts, writing, what have you," he says. "It's a wonderful window to looking at other subjects. To me that is part of the fascination of comics."
As for superheroes, Chalkley shows he does have a soft spot for the caped crusader.
"I think Batman, of all the superheroes, might be my favorite. I donąt know why," Chalkley says, as Batman and the Joker appear on the screen.
Suddenly, the 9-year-old inside Chalkley comes out.
"I think it's because he's got a cool costume."